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In the early months after the September 11 attacks in the United States, an FBI counter-terrorism agent works alongside a Los Angeles district attorney investigator, the two close friends who bicker friendly and tease each other to pass the mundanity of time, until they respond to a call about a body in a dumpster near a mosque under close observation. The discovery permanently alters everything about their relationship, careers, and their futures, setting off a thirteen-year odyssey that finds them coming together again when one is sure they’ve finally found the killer.
Jess Cobb (Julia Roberts) is a homely woman, not interested in playing up her obvious attractive features, instead, keeping plain, drab, and decidedly neutral in her presentation. She is good at her job, and while it is in a pool of debauchery and death where she swims every day, searching for, investigating, and arresting the worst in criminal fare, she keeps a light tone at the office where she has a strong working and friendly relationship with Ray Karsten (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who is enamored with the new assistant DA Claire Sloan (Nicole Kidman), a Harvard grad and beautiful woman. Sloane is engaged but she is clearly attracted to Ray, but the two don’t act upon it, though Jess is near relentless in her jabs to entice to him try. She is a humorous woman and in Ray, has a fun and willing target to vent some laughs.
The body in the dumpster changes that. Jess’s teenaged daughter Caroline (Zoe Graham) is found naked, raped, murdered and bleached inside and out, prompting, naturally, a breakdown in Jess, but then, as the investigation stages, a split in the team as Ray takes it upon himself to find her killer at all costs, a personal vow that becomes an obsession. Jess leaves the city, and Ray is met with nothing but roadblocks and dead-ends, except for one man, a face he sees in an office picnic photograph who seems to be eyeing Caroline. Strangely, no one knows who he is, and the quest to learn his identity frays every last nerve in Karsten until he eventually finds a match in the criminal database. The leads him to an apartment and a hand-drawn comic book, which seems to detail some similarities to Caroline’s case. The man’s name is Marzin (Joe Cole), and Ray is sure he’s the one, but when he’s told that Marzin is a government informant working at the mosque, he is forced to let him go. The frustration and hopelessness felt by Ray, Claire, and especially Jess, have profound effect on them all.
Directed by Billy Ray, best known for his screenplays of Captain Phillips, The Hunger Games, and Flightplan, Secret in their Eyes is a remake of the 2010 Argentinian film with the same name (though that film wisely kept ‘The’ at the start of the title), and like nearly any Hollywood remake of a foreign film, suffers greatly in the translation. A cold and manipulative production, Ray’s film is a sloppily made story that is as generic as a cog off an assembly line, stripped of any sheen and tossed in a bin with a thousand other just like it. There is no subtlety in the presentation, with every sequence framed and shot like it was a submission to an award’s contest. This included the actors, who project and emote with a kind of waxy verisimilitude that, despite their talents, come off terribly flat. This is most true of Roberts, who is barely in the film, but when is on screen, is given large-scale emotional set pieces that simply don’t resonate. The issue is Roberts herself, who is a magnetic, beaming personality, a star with few equals who, while is certainly capable of less glamorous roles, isn’t built for them. Dulling her down for the sake of doing just that rather than for the character she is playing is a terrible misstep, and it feels contrived instead of organic. On the opposite end of that spectrum is Kidman, who is dolled up like a fashion mag model throughout, which in of itself isn’t wrong, but as she is filmed in several sequences sashaying through FBI offices, feels oddly out of place. Ejiofor is best when he his away from both of these women, having no chemistry with either. In fact, his scenes with fellow investigator Bumby Willis (Dean Norris) are much stronger and could have sustained an entire film.
Most frustrating about Secret in their Eyes is the utter lack of investment. The suspense that should and must be central to this kind of story simply isn’t there. The film moves about between two timelines separated by thirteen years, a patch of gray on Karsten’s hair the only real indicator we are given to know where we are. These shifts are meant to fill in gaps between the two periods, but lose their effectiveness quickly, mostly due to its refusal to innovate. Will a character stare at themselves in a mirror and soul search before smacking it? Will superiors question their employees with loud rebuttals and blanket denials with no other provocation other than that is what they do? Will a police room interrogation be a verbal game of cat and mouse? Yes, yes, and yes. And while all of these can be done well, here, they are not. Worse yet is the ‘surprise’ twist that is, like so many of late, not at all surprising, and completely unearned.
Secret in their Eyes wants to be about too many things, from shoddy police work and ethical conundrums of post 9/11 terror investigation to unrequited love and personal vengeance. It makes attempts to give weight to all of these but can’t put them all together in a satisfying experience. Despite a few moments that hint of a stronger production, the film is ultimately bland, a forgettable story that should be anything but.
Movie description: Secret In Their Eyes is a 2015 crime drama about a team of investigators torn apart when one of them is effected by a murder too close too home.
Director(s): Billy Ray
Actor(s): Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts